The New Orleans Saints, beginning the 2013 season with Sean Payton back at the helm, played as if the old sheriff never left. Playing in front of an ecstatic crowd in the Superdome, its feel was different from a year ago this time, when the team was embarrassed by the Washington Redskins.
Instead, the Saints took out their frustrations on a divisional rival in the Atlanta Falcons, a team that is simply "Super Bowl or bust" in 2013. Granted, it might only be the first game of a new season.
But the Saints provided a valiant effort on both sides of the football that was reminiscent of when they won a championship just a few years ago.
Drew Brees might have continued to prove his elite status over the course of last season, but it was evident that the return of his head coach led to an offense that was had regained its aggressiveness. The Saints controlled the time of possession, having the football for over 35 minutes.
Brees, as usual, excelled with Payton calling the plays and keeping up the tempo. He threw for 357 yards and two touchdowns while connecting with seven receivers.
His two most consistent pass-catchers, wide receiver Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, both caught touchdowns and continued to show that they are at their best when playing in front of the home crowd.
Yet, the biggest story of the game is the Saints defense, a unit that was statistically one of the worst in the history of the NFL. Rob Ryan was brought in by Payton to reinvent a defense that needed improvements in every area.
But more importantly, Ryan could re-energize a defense by bringing a swagger and confidence that this unit has lacked for the past few seasons. The objective at hand would be to turn up the blitz and impose their will on the opponent by forcing turnovers. That was the similar strategy that this defense took upon itself during the Gregg Williams era.
Quite frankly, they managed to do just that. First, it was a forced fumble by Roman Harper, who eventually returned it 19 yards deep into Falcons territory. The Saints offense quickly capitalized on the good field position and managed to tie the game in the second quarter.
Though, the most notable turnover came when the Saints were being backed into a corner by a Falcons offense that was orchestrating a last-second comeback. Instead, it was the New Orleans defense that struck first, as rookie Kenny Vaccaro tipped a Matt Ryan pass that ultimately led to a Harper interception in the end zone.
As the MMQB noted, it was the Saints defense that determined this outcome.
Believe it or not, it's the Saints' defense that won this game. Kenny Vaccaro with a nice tip on the pass to Gonzalez.— The MMQB (@theMMQB) September 8, 2013
It was an escape for the Saints, who almost lost a heartbreaker to begin the season against one of the top-tier teams in the National Football League. However, the Falcons were not able to overcome the resiliency of a franchise that endured plenty of trouble and embarrassment over the past year.
All of the troubles managed to fuel the Saints, who regrouped this offseason when one of the game's premier head coaches put this team back on the right track.
This win might be only one game out of a 16-game schedule, but it will be one that could define the Saints' return to success.
With an elite head coach and quarterback who orchestrates the offense, and accompanied by a defense that can make a big play when needed most, it might be a formality for the Saints to return to relevancy and add a new dynamic to a conference that is already unpredictable.
Matt Miselis is a league-wide NFL columnist for BleacherReport. Follow him on twitter @MattMiselisNFL.